On 20 September, PM Rishi Sunak announced a U-turn on climate change policy.
The pivot endangers the scant possibility of reaching Net Zero and contravenes the continued advice given by the Climate Change Committee (CCC). In a June 2023 analysis, the CCC stated: “The UK has sent confusing signals on its climate priorities to the global community.” Wednesday’s announcement has only further damaged the UK’s reputation.
Below are the main policy changes from Sunak’s announcement:
The 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars has been delayed to 2035
The 2026 phaseout of oil, gas and new goal heating for off-gas-grid homes will be pushed back to 2035
Landlords are no longer responsible for meeting minimum energy efficiency standard for rental properties
The grant available to upgrade boilers will be increased from £5,000 to £7,500
In Carbon Brief’s detailed analysis, the authors argued, “Even though some of the policy changes have turned out to be more limited than Sunak’s speech suggested, the confusion he created for consumers – and the uncertainty for investors – could have long-lasting impacts.” Indeed, Sunak’s announcement may have damaged the Conservative reputation and his own leadership more than the UK decarbonisation trajectory, according to climate analyst Michael Liebreich. Sunak also repealed a variety of claims which were reportedly never actual policy, and which will not be elaborated here.
So, whilst the ramifications of Sunak’s policy are potentially damaging, the issue at play here may be less about UK climate policy and more about leadership challenges in the run up to GE2024. Sunak’s move will likely lead to positive perceptions amongst the Conservative base whilst also further alienating the centre-left by causing widespread confusion among voters.
The announcement is also a challenge to Starmer’s leadership. The Labour leader recently admitted that the Labour party must “reflect” on its environmental strategy after the ULEZ became a determining factor in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Sunak presents a policy conundrum to Labour which will ultimately be understood in leadership terms. Either Labour will double-down on climate policy and present a hard-line opposition to Sunak’s recalcitrant approach, or they follow suit. Labour’s current plan, The Green Transformation, doesn’t even mention heat pumps. The party also offered a mixed response to Sunak’s claims, stating they would reinstate the 2030 deadline for banning petrol/diesel cars but would not restore the 2026 phase out of gas boilers.
The announcement and subsequent coverage probes a question pivotal to the next year as the UK prepares for a general election. What is more important in determining the outcome of elections: policy or leadership?